Eye on the Senate: Avenge 2002?

by Paul Hogarth on October 10, 2008

For progressives, 2002 was the year Democrats failed to oppose President Bush’s March to War—and lost control of the U.S. Senate. But the two most depressing outcomes of that year were the Senate races in Georgia and Minnesota, where Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Norm Coleman vanquished their opponents by sinking to new lows. Chambliss cynically compared his rival (a double amputee and Vietnam veteran) to Osama bin Laden. Coleman prevailed after the tragic death of Senator Paul Wellstone, and got help from the right’s despicable attacks on Paul’s memorial service. Six years later, Chambliss and Coleman were poised for much of this campaign season to getting safely re-elected—as their new rivals struggled to gain traction. But with Barack Obama’s latest surge and the economic crisis causing a tidal wave against Republicans, progressives now have a chance to prevail. If they can pull off such a feat, it will be one of their best reasons to celebrate Election Night.

Georgia: Can the Bailout Finally Sink Chambliss?

In 2002, Senator Max Cleland did everything an “electable” Democrat from Georgia was supposed to do to win. He dutifully supported the Iraq War Resolution, and ran TV commercials that said he voted with George Bush eighty-five percent of the time. Little did he know how shameless his Republican opponent would be: Saxby Chambliss took one vote Cleland cast on the Department of Homeland Security to run attack ads morphing the Vietnam veteran and double amputee into Al Qaeda villain Osama bin Laden. Some of Chambliss’ Senate colleagues still won’t talk to him because of that.

But it’s hard to think of a single Senate race in this cycle whose dynamics have shifted so quickly in such a short time. Defeating Saxby Chambliss appeared like a lost cause for most Democrats this year—as Georgia has trended further to the right (the state’s last Democratic Senator was Zell Miller), and other pick-up opportunities were far more doable. When Democrats Jim Martin and Vernon Jones duked it out for the party’s nomination, few observers outside Georgia bothered to care.

However, the seeds were sown early on for this race. Jones generated controversy for publishing campaign leaflets that featured him with Barack Obama (complete with the “Yes We Can” slogan), although the photos were doctored and Obama said he wasn’t taking sides in the primary fight. He further got in trouble for admitting that he voted for George Bush in the 2004 election. Liberal bloggers rejoiced when Jim Martin (who has a progressive platform), won the Democratic primary—but no one thought he could beat Chambliss in the general. As recently as September 14th, Martin was down by 17 points.

Early on in the presidential race, Obama made an effort at targeting Georgia—hoping the red state’s large African-American population (and Libertarian Bob Barr playing spoiler) could possibly steal its electoral votes from John McCain. Picking Sarah Palin threw a wrench in those plans—as she revived the Bible Belt crowd, so Obama’s campaign promptly pulled out of the state. But he helped lay the groundwork by registering thousands of black voters, and early voting has proven to be encouraging—helping Martin’s chances.

Then the financial crisis hit … and Chambliss voted for the $700 billion bailout. The first-term Republican hadn’t distinguished himself much in the Senate, and the South has an economic populist streak that doesn’t think highly of Wall Street. Now polling shows the race tied, and liberal bloggers are pouring in resources. Confident that Obama will win, Markos Moulitsas has urged bloggers not to rest on their laurels—but to focus on races where they can throw Republicans an anvil.

Martin still has an uphill battle against Chambliss, but if he wins it will be an especially sweet victory for progressives.

Minnesota: Maybe Al Franken Can Pull it Off …

Loyal readers know that this Senate race is very personal for me. Paul Wellstone was a hero and mentor of mine, and his death in a plane crash—just eleven days before his re-election in 2002—was the worst day of my life. Norm Coleman, who Garrison Keillor called a “hollow man” who “sold his soul for a Senate seat,” had been running a vicious campaign against Wellstone—aided by Vice President Dick Cheney.

And the aftermath of Paul’s death was for many progressives a nightmare. Democrats rallied behind Walter Mondale as a last-minute replacement, but there was an obvious need to have a Memorial Service. Held one week before the Election (and with a crowd of 20,000), the service was the kind of raucous event you’d expect from those who loved Paul Wellstone—but still shell-shocked over the circumstances of his death. Republicans who never understood or appreciated Wellstone attacked the event for being “partisan” and “political”—although they did the same thing two years later for Ronald Reagan.

Coleman won that election—due to the right-wing noise machine’s manufactured outrage over the Memorial Service. Six months later, Coleman said he was a “vast improvement” over Paul Wellstone—because he got along so much better with the Bush Administration.

But TV comedian Al Franken has had a tough time challenging Norm Coleman this time around. I’ve been skeptical of Franken from the start, and for months Coleman successfully made the race about Franken’s personality—and his prior off-color jokes that in a different context would be viewed as offensive. Coleman, meanwhile, eluded legitimate charges that he was getting a sweetheart deal off a Capitol Hill apartment—and receiving improper gifts.

Now, with Obama’s campaign producing coat-tails in Minnesota and the economic crisis bringing Democrats back home, the race appears to be shifting dramatically. New polls show Al Franken ahead (or at the very least the race tied), and Coleman’s press secretary has been reduced to repeating the same talking points that aren’t fooling any reporters. Just take a look at this recent video of a press conference in the Twin Cities.

Under different economic circumstances, Republican attacks on Al Franken’s jokes or Barack Obama’s connections with Bill Ayers would be more potent. But voters now are worried about paying the mortgage or the rent, their rising health care costs and filling up the gas tank. All of a sudden, Coleman’s lavish Washington lifestyle—or how many houses John McCain doesn’t know he owns—is a more effective attack for swing voters.

The fate of Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss and Norm Coleman have yet to be determined—but progressives still angry about what happened in 2002 suddenly have a better chance of winning on Election Day. As the Huffington Post proudly proclaimed on their front-page yesterday, Al Franken and Jim Martin are “Obama’s Coat-Tails.”

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